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Why good friends are essential for your health

Laughing, crying or even having a moan together: close friends are worth their weight in gold in good and bad times. Researcher Lisa Schreuders explains the effects on body and mind. Can we give that magical click a helping hand? And what advice does she have for first-years in their new city?

Why are friends so important? 

‘Friendships contribute to better mental health by reducing the risk of depression and anxiety and they help us weather negative experiences better. They also have a positive effect on the immune system. People with a strong social network have even been found to have better survival rates from illnesses. Exclusion and loneliness lead to stress, which impacts your mental and physical health. Young people who are bullied are more likely to have symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches.

We are currently starting up a major study at growinguptogetherinsociety to find out how the social environment contributes to self-regulation and the ability to get a grip on your thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and how that influences social success factors. For students, that could be study success, for example. I can’t make any firm statements about that yet because selection processes also play a role: young people who perform well tend to seek one another out, for example.’

Friends help us weather negative experiences better

What advice would you give students or other people who are looking for close friends?

‘Make space for new friendships, because it takes time to build up and maintain a close bond. There is generally a better click if you and the other person share similarities: if you think the same about social issues or if you have the same taste in music, for instance. Friends are often on the same wavelength, you could say. American psychologist  Carolyn Parkinson even shows in her Similar neural responses predict friendship | Nature Communications research that friends show similar brain activity when they watch a nature film, for example: with friends, more of the same brain areas, such as those related to attention and judgement, lit up than with other participants.

Back to making new friends: a whole range of different events are organised at the start of the academic year to give new students a chance to get to know one another better. Doing fun activities with a group is a low-threshold and effective way of making a lot of new social contacts quickly. Taking part in the traditions of a student union, for example, helps to strengthen the sense of belonging to a group, which also allows friendships to develop quickly.’

How do you remain ‘yourself’ in groups of friends with rigid rules, unwritten or otherwise, about behaviour, standards and appearance, for example?

‘I haven’t done any research on how to discuss difficult issues in friendships, but I can say that it often helps to remove yourself from the heat of the moment in difficult situations. By leaving the room, for example, and taking time to think things over: is this really what I want? It’s easier to disagree with one another if there is enough mutual trust and give-and-take, because that’s a good basis for a close friendship.’

You and a team studied how friendships affect the brain. What did you learn?

‘Older adolescents from 15 years onwards internalise social norms more, such as being helpful towards friends, and they show this less with peers they don’t like or don’t know. We can see that in the brain. Our research - Friendship stability in adolescence  in Nature Communications – also shows that the reward centre in the brain of older adolescents becomes more active when they win money for close friends. So growing adolescents want to invest more in maintaining friendships, and that is crucial for developing long-term close relationships.’ 



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